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Chapter 4 – Valran – Duck

688046“Duck.”

Valran ducked. The hose swung over his head and back again, dousing him with warm water. He could barely remember the last time he’d had a true warm shower… not that this exactly counted. This was more like a grooming station, but he’d take it.

It was Bicla wielding the hose. Valran wasn’t entirely sure what he felt about that. He wasn’t required to feel anything; Bicla had bent her knee in service and thus was, technically, the same status as Valran. That didn’t, however, keep her from giving him orders.

“Eyes closed.”

“Eyes closed, ma’am.” He squeezed them a little tighter.

“Don’t give me that shit, Servus.” The water over him was a bit colder this time.

“I don’t see why not, ma’am.” He smiled, although he couldn’t see her. “It’s the nicest flavor of shit I have to give.”

“Because I can make your life miserable while you are here.”

“Yes.” He nodded, guessing at her position. “But I’m not trying to pick a fight with you, ma’am. I’m trying to do as you tell me to, to get out of here as smoothly as possible.”

“Then why do you keep calling me ma’am?”

“Is ‘ix’ or ‘sir’ appropriate?” Her named ended in a feminine la. That was usually a safe bet…

“No!” The water stopped. He could hear her moving around behind him. “Shampooing, don’t open your eyes. “No. I’m female, bodied and chosen.”

The bodied was fairly obvious; she was as naked as he was.

“Then am I missing some inner-circle nuance again?” Valran peeled open one eye to peer at the other Servus. She was stalking towards him with a jar of liquid soap, her feet slapping on the tile as if she wished she were wearing boots.

“Missing some… you’re not jerking my chain?”

“I assure you, ma… Bicla, I really don’t want to cause trouble.” He opened both eyes, despite her orders to the contrary. “I’ve heard stories, know.”

At that, she stopped. “Stories.” It wasn’t, quite, a question. But it could be read that way, if he wanted it to be.

He did. “You have to get through a year on the Outer Circle. Unless you’re already there, of course.”

“Of course.”

“And then you have to be accepted into service.”

“Yes.” She gestured with one hand, get on with it.

“And then you’re bid on. But the head of the program has the final say on who sees you to bid, who’s allowed to bid, whose bid is taken, and how long the term of service is.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Bicla’s hand went to her collar. “I know this.”

“Yes.” Although, from the stories he’d heard, many of those who bent knee didn’t know any of it. “But there’s a lot of control in the hands of the head of the program – and their staff.”

“Ah.” Her hand dropped. “Oh. So why are you giving me shit, then?”

“I’m not, not on purpose. I swear that to you. I’m not trying to give you any trouble at all; I’m trying to be respectful.”

“No-one calls the servus ma’am.

“Perhaps most people don’t. But you are in a position of power over me; you’re on a higher rung.”

“The servus aren’t on rungs. What are you, stupid?”

He placed his hands very carefully on the edge of the tub, to keep from doing something unwise with them. “Bicla Servus, I am trying to show respect, because you could ruin me.”

“You’re not making a joke out of it?”

“No! No, I’m not doing that, I promise you, this is not me making fun of you.”

“Close your eyes.”

Valran couldn’t tell if that was disagreement or agreement. He closed his eyes anyway.

“You’re not outer circle, not born.” He could feel the soap trickle onto his wet hair.

“No.” He held as still as he could. “But not all that far in or anything. Not far enough.”

“The last two we had come through, they were real inner circle sorts. Second and Third circle, talked fancy, polished nails.”

“How did…” Valran shut his mouth. You were supposed to have to go through the same qualifications whether you were Tenth Circle or First.

“Pencil-pushers. And they were full of themselves.”

“Did you get them placed with bad owners?”

“Never occurred to me. And, I mean, I don’t know how much the Deputy would listen to me. I’m ris driver and maid, not like ris confidante. Ri doesn’t have to do any listening; that’s my job.”

“It’s surprising how much people listen to their servants.”

“And how would you know?” Her hands began massaging his scalp, strong fingers working the soap through his hair and into a lather.

“I listen. And I’ve worked for inner circle people from time to time. Before I went out to the Outer Circle.”

“Why’d you do it?”

“It won’t make any sense.”

“You saying I’m stupid?”

“No, not at all.” He leaned back into her touch. “That feels really nice.”

“Thanks. Took classes. What’re you saying, then?”

“That’s it’s weird, and I don’t entirely understand it myself. But I tell you what. If you ask me when my service is over, I’ll tell you everything I can.”

“My service’ll probably be over by then, too.”

“Probably?”

“I’m not one of you crazies who did this on purpose.” Her fingers paused in his hair, as if daring him.

“Aaah.” He let the silence drag on, one heartbeat, another, another. When he said nothing else, she went back to massaging and shampooing.

“Anyway, the food is good and the hours aren’t horrible and I’m cleaner than I ever was before.”

“That’s two of us.” He ran his hand through the water while she worked. “This is pretty posh, even if it is a vet station.”

“Gotta have the merch nice and pretty and packaged up before you sell ‘em. Otherwise you don’t bring in much money, the program doesn’t bring in as much money, and the whole system falls down.”

“Sounds like you’ve heard that line before.”

“Nothing I’m gonna talk about. I don’t talk about my work or my boss, and neither should you.”

“When I have work and a boss, I won’t. But make it a date? Ten years’ time, I’ll buy you a drink and we can swap war stories?”

“Sure. But you’re still getting shaved.”

“Shaved… oh. Oh, well, fine.” He was glad his eyes were already closed. “If you hand me a razor, I can do those parts myself, you know.”

“Fat chance, pretty boy. Just try to relax and enjoy this part while it’s fun, okay? I don’t do this for everyone.”

Pretty boy. “Nobody’s every called me that before.”

“What, pretty? Nobody calls me that, either, but you’re pretty good when the grime is all washed off.”

“I’ve been clean before.” Possibly not this clean, but clean.

“If you were working for inner circle sorts, you’d have to be. They don’t like dirt.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Or hair?”

“Or hair. They like things tidy. I mean, not all of them, but the sort that would buy a boy like you.” Her hands were on his neck now, working on knots he hadn’t known existed.

Massage or not, he wasn’t sure boy like you was any better than pretty boy. “You really do know a lot about the business, don’t you?”

“I listen. I’m really good at listening.” He could feel the way the shrug shifted her shoulders. “And I drive the boss around and everything, so I get a lot of chances to listen. Dunk.”

“Dun… oh.” He slipped under the water. Her hands were still in his hair and, for a minute, he panicked. She could hold him under here. She could drown him. She could…

…but then she’d be in a lot of trouble, and if she hadn’t volunteered for the collar…. Valran forced himself to relax. Bicla wasn’t going to drown him. She couldn’t afford it.

A tug on the back of his collar told him it was time to come back out of the water. “You didn’t freak.”

“I thought about it.”

“But you didn’t. Hunh.” She rubbed something else through his hair. “All right, up on the edge and spread ‘em.”

“Do you have to…?” He found his feet in the slick tub and worked on standing.

“Don’t even ask questions like that. It’s ridiculous.”

“I can complain, can’t I? It itches.”

“Oh, when I’m done, it won’t itch at all.”

Valran froze, one leg on the edge of the tub. “Bicla…”

“Relax, pretty boy. No use arguing, you don’t have any choice on the matter and neither do it.”

“Bicla,” he tried again anyway, “that’s awfully close to things that are very near and dear to my heart.”

“I don’t think we’re talking about your heart, are we? And besides, relax. It’s practically a warding.”

“I didn’t sign up for this.”

“Ah, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? What did you actually sign up for? Did you read the fine print?”

One of them hadn’t, that was for sure. “Of course.” And he had. That was one of the nightmare scenarios he’d heard the most about – those forced into dangerous and compromising positions for so long that at the end of their chosen-service, they were useless to anyone, including themselves. “But…”

“I know what I’m doing, Valran Servus. I’ve done it to myself. Now sit down.”

He sat, slowly, spreading his legs. It probably shouldn’t have surprised him to find that the tub was designed for this, with an almost-comfortable seat and two footrests.

“Do I have to strap you down?”

“Uh. No. No, as long as the only thing you’re cutting is hair.”

“Nothing but hair, I can promise that much. Al right, do your best to hold still, will ya?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He braced himself in the surprisingly comfortable position and closed his eyes. There were some things you just didn’t want to watch.

She started with scissors trimming down the hair between his legs and around his cock and balls. The scissors made quiet shick, shick noises and, while he felt the cold metal a time or two, she cut very carefully and never cut him.

“All right, that was the fuzzy part. Now onto the fun part.” Bicla’s hands worked over and under Valran’s balls, lathering him up. He opened his eyes, wondering what she was thinking.

She was smiling, although the expression looked more meditative and less aroused. She caught him looking, however, and picked up the razor “And not the really fun part. “

Valran closed his eyes again, but that didn’t stop the sensations. The razor followed in the path the scissors had taken, cutting off the remaining hair.

Behind the razor, Bicla’s fingers followed. Valran tried very hard not to shiver. It had been months… And the last thing he wanted was her fingers to slip or her attention to be divided.

“There. There…” She ran her palms down his legs. “And now you’re nice and smooth and it won’t itch.”

“I don’t think I’ll thank you for that.” He ran his fingers over her work, though. “You’re sure?”

“Relax. It’s the smallest draw of power possible, it was very focused, and I didn’t go under the skin enough to hurt anything. You’d think you were a Purist, the way you’re talking.”

“I’m only a Purist when it comes to my nuts.”

“Only your nuts? Not…” She wrapped her hand around the other part of that equation and tugged.

“Uunf, Bicla, that’s not very nice.”

“No, but it’s fun. There, Purist-Pretty, you’re almost all set. Now all you need is for someone to buff your fingernails and pierce those pretty ears… they barely have a point at all.” Her hand stilled. “You’re not actually a Purist, are you?”

“No.” He stole a kiss – just her cheek – and settled back into the uncomfortable tub seat. “That, at least, I am not.”

Chapter 2 – Valran – Kneel

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“Kneel, Valran Trestor.”

He wasn’t expecting it. He should have been; after all, he’d been working on the Outer Ring for a year now, doing his time to earn this very right, to hear those very words.

And yet still, when they came, Valran was taken aback. He turned to stare at the thin, robed, woman. She was wearing high-circle silks and thin sandals; she didn’t belong out here on the Outer Circle wall.

“Kneel, Valran Trestor.”

Here? In front of the wall team, in front of criminals and the desperate, the hungry and the mad?

“I will not tell you three times. Are you Valran, born of Trestor?”

This was happening, here, now. This was real, and not a dream born of thirst and exhaustion.

Valran fell to his knees before the woman could walk away. “I am Valran, born of Trestor.”

“You have petitioned for service to the Ladder.”

“I have, yes.” She was lovely, but there was such an ice about her loveliness, an artifice to the slightly off-blue color of her skin and the tips of her pointed ears. She did nothing at all for Valran. But that had always been one of his problems.

“And you have served at the Outer Wall for one year and survived.”

“Yes, ma’am. I have done so.”

He could hear some of the wall crew sniggering. There were easier ways to climb the Ladder. There were less humiliating ways to move in from the Outer Circle, and Valran – born of Trestor, in the Seventh Ring – had moved out to get here, for the privilege of bending his knee to this icy, artificial woman.

“Your petition has been approved. You are to be accepted into service and presented at the next auction, tomorrow morning.” She coughed, a move as fake as everything else about her. Perhaps the smell of unwashed bodies offended her. “Should you accept, you will be prepared in that time for the event.”

“I am kneeling, aren’t I?”

Behind Valran, the crew had gone from sniggering to outright laughter.

“While you’re on your knees, why don’t you show her what you’re offering? I bet you could give her a nice free sample.”

“Forget about showing her, why not show us? We’re the ones that gotta work out here all day.”

“Awww, I don’t think she likes us. Look at her holding up her hem as if the dirt might be contagious. Come on, lady. We’re the ones making your precious inner circles safer.”

“Your work is appreciated, as it always is.” She used the same bored, crisp tone with the crew as she had with Valran.

“Aaww, if you’re going to appreciate us, why not come over and really give us some tasty appreciation? Sit and conversate a little, warm a spot of ground, share our lunch?”

Valran looked between the woman and the crew, then back. “I am kneeling to serve, lady.” So take the way out before they get cruder.

“You understand that the service, once you take it, is for ten years or until death? You understand that there is no backing out?”

“Once I have knelt, I kneel to the Ladder until I am freed. Yes.” Three rings out, ten in. He could kneel for that long.

“Then as proxy to the Council of New Indapala, I accept your bent knee and your petition.” She snapped the cord holding his ID chit. “Hold still.”

What else was there to do? Without the ID chit, he could go nowhere but out; not even the ninth circle would let him past their gates. “Ma’am.”

“It’s ix, actually, not ma’am. I’m told it’s harder to tell with those of us in the innermost circles.” She – rhi – wrapped something around Valran’s neck.

“Rise, Valran Servus.”

The collar around his neck felt impossibly heavy. Valran stood, paying no heed at all to the jeers of the work crew. They no longer mattered at all to him.

“It will be interesting, to see who buys you.” The woman started walking, and Valran, having been given no other directive, followed her.

“You don’t look like the sort to take the collar. At least not this collar.” She didn’t bother to turn around, but Valran had to assume the inner-circler was speaking to him. There was nobody else visible, for one.

“Nobody looks like the type after a year on the Outer Ring, ix. They look like they are dirty, and tired, and hungry.”

“And muscular. You didn’t want to go the route of the Gladiator? You would draw good ticket sales, looking the way you do.”

“I didn’t look like this a year ago.” Valran stood up a bit straighter. “I looked like any pencil-pusher.”

“And you chose to work the Wall for a year, for the right to kneel for ten. That is some sort of devotion.” The words should have suggested surprise, or awe, or disgust, but they were flat, with no infliction at all. It was as if she had a script she didn’t really care about.

“I did what I needed to. I’m doing what I need to.” His reasons were his own. Other people on the Outer Circle had family, loved ones, a crazy business plan – some reasons they needed a leg up or a shortcut on the Ladder. Not Valran.

“Will it be enough to carry you through ten years?” Now the inner-circler turned to look at him. Blue-painted lips were pursed, and blue-lined eyes stared into him. “Will it be enough to keep you on your knees when everything inside of you is screaming at you to stand?”

“It will have to be. It is all I have.” He shrugged, unmoved by her stare.

“And, if in the end, you find yourself not in the circle you wanted? Will you go back and try again?”

Would he?

A year on the Outer Circle – if he survived it, he could handle it, but the crew had a fifty percent fatality rate. Ten years of bended knee – possibly eleven, by then – that, he did not know.

“Will you come get me again, if I do?”

“I may. This is the rung of the Ladder I have settled on, after all.” A low bow accompanied the words, the sort that Valran thought was supposed to be ironic. “And there aren’t that many who do this job of mine.” The bow unfolded into a gesture, pointing towards the gate. “I’ve heard this is called ‘chutes and ladders’ in some circles, and I’ve played the ancient game. Will you step onto the chute, Valran Servus?”

There was a car waiting there at the end of the gesture. A car, long and sleek, paneled in tooled metal and driven by a short woman in a wide metal collar. Valran had only seen such things a handful of times in his life; they rarely left the inner circles.

“The chute.” He coughed, found his throat was still clogged, and coughed again. “Yes. I’ve knelt. I’ve taken the collar. Everything else is just a formality.”

“But such interesting formalities.” The inner-circler opened the door for him; peeking in, he could see that the back of the car was upholstered in silk like the robes his escort was wearing.

“I’ll get it dirty.”

“It’s warded against it. You’re not the first one we’ve picked up from the Outer Circle, of course.”

Valran coughed again. “Of course.” He slipped in, sitting gingerly on the soft fabric. “Why this? Why the car? It seems like a risk.”

“Of course it is.” His escort slipped in next to him and closed the door. The vehicle suddenly seemed much smaller with the three of them in there, trapped in with Valran’s work-stench. “But so is what you have done and what you are about to do. Forward, Bicla. Back home.”

“As you wish, ix.” The car started moving, slowly at first, with a series of jerky back-and-forths, and then more quickly.

“As I was saying, it is a risk. Anything we do is a risk. Ah, the first gate.”

Valran held his breath. This gate, he walked through every night; it led into the protected part of the city, the part that counted as New Indapala. It looked different, driving through it.

Everything looked different, through a window. The slums of the Tenth Circle looked dirtier, even, than in walking through them, the houses smaller. From here, you couldn’t see the ladders in the back courtyards, so everything looked very forbidding, even the Wall-worker common housing.

“It’s all so unfriendly.” The tone in his escort’s voice could have been an echo of Valran’s thoughts. “Just endless walls.”

He cleared his throat yet again. “The backs aren’t like that. There’s the gates between courtyards, and all the ladders, old mothers and fathers hanging out gossiping while they cook dinner. It’s just the street fronts.”

“Oh, I remember. But it’s been a lifetime.” The inner-circler graced Valran with a wry smile. “It wasn’t the Tenth Circle, then; it was the Eighth. And it was a bit deeper in, not the wall-worker houses, at least.”

“At least.” Valran’s mouth felt as if it was made of chalk and concrete. After a year on the Outer Circle, it probably was. “You…”

“Oh, come now. You know not all that many adults in the inner circles were born there. You cannot hold a whole name and never touch the outer rings.”

His escort was getting far too much amusement out of this. For that matter, so was the driver; Bicla, that was her name, right? Bicla was chuckling. At him. Valran’s ears were warm.

He settled on the only thing he was certain of. “I don’t know your name.”

“Oh, but you do. Unless you’re illiterate, of course, but you signed the papers with a name and not an X, and Seventh Circle hasn’t been the outer ring for quite some time.”

“You enjoy this, don’t you, ix?” Anger was a good thing. He could hold on to that.

“I enjoy everything about my position. But haven’t you guessed, yet?”

“I didn’t know I was required to. Ix.”

Bicla chuckled again, which didn’t help matters. And the inner circle… oh.

His fists clenched. “You.”

“There. I knew you’d get it.” The Second Circle Deputy Oligarch patted Valran’s leg. “I do enjoy my job.”